A marriage of convenience for Moscow, but Tehran has an ominous aim
Ever since Vladimir Putin launched his military intervention in Syria, Moscow has maintained an uneasy alliance with Iran. On one level, Russia and Iran have shared the same objective: keeping the regime of Bashar al-assad in power. Indeed, Mr Putin’s decision to intervene in Syria in 2014 was only taken after he received a warning from Iran’s elite Quds Force that the Assad regime was on the point of collapse.
This prospect had potentially serious consequences for the future of Russia’s military bases in Syria, at Latakia and Tartus, which date back to the Cold War era and were established as part of Moscow’s long-standing strategic partnership with the Assad family. Russia’s primary interest, therefore, in supporting the Assad regime was to protect and maintain its military operations in Syria.
Iran, on the other hand, sees its ties with Damascus as an attempt to strengthen its influence in the Arab world. Apart from keeping open vital supply lines across the Lebanese border to Hizbollah, the Iranianbacked Shia militia, Iran has taken advantage of Syria’s long-running civil war to build permanent military bases.
Iran’s justification for expanding its military involvement in Syria has been to strengthen its ability to tackle the numerous rebel groups that are fighting to overthrow the Assad regime. But the fact that the Iranians have deployed thousands of medium and long-range missiles in Syria suggests they have a more ominous objective – to threaten Israel.
Iran’s insistence on exploiting its alliance with Assad to establish a new front in its long-standing confrontation with the Jewish state has created tensions between Moscow and Tehran, as the Kremlin has no interest in provoking a conflict with Israel. On the contrary, Mr Putin is said to enjoy a good relationship with Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, to the extent that, in the past, Moscow has given Israel a green light to attack Iranian positions in Syria, even though Russia and Iran are supposed to be allies fighting common cause on behalf of the Assad regime.
It is now being reported that Israel gave Moscow advance warning of its latest wave of air strikes against the Iranians on Wednesday night after Iran was accused of firing a number of rockets at the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights from its Syrian bases.
This curious state of affairs helps to illustrate the underlying tensions between Russia and Iran, which date back to the previous decade. Then, the Russians accused Tehran of providing misleading information about the true extent of its nuclear enrichment programme.
Any alliance, then, between Russia and Iran is likely to be more of a marriage of convenience than a close strategic partnership.
And a good way for the Russians to secure the future of their military bases in Syria would be to persuade Iran to cease its aggressive actions towards Israel.